CSO musicians connect with students through virtual conversations

CSO musician Miles Maner demonstrates on the contrabassoon during a virtual Q&A with students at Blackhawk Middle School.

Music, as an art form, requires rigorous attention to both individual craft and collaborative skills — a balancing act that often begins in the classroom, as young musicians learn to play their own instruments and to perform as an ensemble. While the key element of ensemble playing has not been possible during the pandemic, music teachers have shown remarkable flexibility in adapting their curriculum to help their students succeed.

The Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has supported educators during remote learning by providing access to CSO Sessions — the CSO’s series of newly filmed chamber-music performances — and arranging online conversations between CSO musicians and students. In celebration of Music of Our Schools Month in March, we caught up with some of the teachers, students and musicians who have participated in these partnerships.

When Chicago Public Schools first transitioned to virtual learning in March 2020, Ashley McKinstry — an orchestra director and music theory teacher at Nicholas Senn High School — worked with her colleagues to ensure that every orchestra and band student had an instrument to practice on at home. While the orchestra has not been able to gather in person for nearly a year, McKinstry has been virtually coaching groups of three or four students at a time. In addition, the class has spent more time completing listening assignments and studying music history, with an emphasis on composers who have been underrepresented in the canon.

McKinstry’s students have also watched several episodes of CSO Sessions, featuring works by Stravinsky, Saint-Georges, Dvořák, Prestini, Perkinson, Mendelssohn, Gounod, Mozart and Ravel. The class recently welcomed CSO musicians Susanna Gaunt (horn) and Daniel Armstrong (bass) for a virtual discussion. According to McKinstry, the students were especially interested in hearing about the musicians’ journeys to become members of the CSO and how their careers have changed during the pandemic. One 12th-grade violinist was so engrossed in the conversation that she stayed on the call after the Q&A session to speak further with Gaunt and Armstrong on topics including auditions and teaching music.

At Lane Tech College Prep High School, also part of CPS, the sinfonietta orchestra and symphonic band classes met with CSO Principal Bass Alexander Hanna and trombone Michael Mulcahy. To prepare, Orchestra Director Devon Morales’ students viewed the CSO Sessions episode featuring Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. Then, in small groups, they wrote and performed their own stories, accompanied with sound effects and small melodies that they had composed.

During their conversation with Hanna and Mulcahy, the students were “fully engaged and just in awe” of the CSO musicians, says Morales. One of the key takeaways came from a moment when Mulcahy shared that he experiences a hesitation, or as he calls it, an “emotional clench” when performing for a video recording. “All of my students immediately sighed with relief,” says Morales.

Since we have been learning fully remotely for the past year, so many of their performances have been recorded, and they have been going through a lot of collective anxiety about it. They were excited to make that connection that even professional musicians struggle with this skill. … The session was a great connection moment with both musicians, as our students realized that CSO musicians are human, too, and have been through, or are going through, a lot of the same things that they are as high school students. It was a highlight of the school year!

Another educator who recently has partnered with the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute is William Winters, a band director at Blackhawk Middle School in west suburban Bensenville. Winters is spending more one-on-one time with students this year, allowing him to customize curriculum to their individual needs. While the band cannot rehearse in person, students are taking private lessons with Winters and doing more activities that require reflection and interpretation, such as watching videos and listening to music. The full group meets online once per week to work on collaborative projects and hear from guest musicians.

One such guest was Miles Maner, who plays the bassoon and contrabassoon in the CSO. To prepare for his visit, Winters’ students watched an episode of CSO Sessions featuring a woodwind arrangement of Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet. They also submitted questions on a range of topics, including the differences between double-reed and single-reed instruments, Maner’s own education, his experience auditioning for the CSO and his musical activities outside of playing in the Orchestra.

During remote learning, students from Blackhawk Middle School view a CSO Sessions episode featuring a woodwind arrangement of Prokofiev’s Suite from "Romeo and Juliet."

For Winters’ students, one memorable lesson from their conversation with Maner was the importance of hard work to perform at a high level, whether in music or other fields. In a reflection assignment after the event, one student wrote, “Something interesting about Mr. Maner is how he … had to work and apply for other jobs before he made it to the CSO. This shows that his hard work paid off, and he didn't give up.” Another student added, “I thought the most important part was that he talked about how you can never give up and that sometimes harder things take more work.”

The opportunity for personal connections during a time of physical isolation has been meaningful for teachers, students and CSO musicians alike. Assistant Principal Clarinet John Bruce Yeh was grateful to continue his relationship with the members of Fenton High School’s wind ensemble program in Bensenville, a group he previously had visited several times. In a Zoom meeting in November, they shared stories of their musical experiences during the pandemic. Yeh discussed his CSO Sessions performances of Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet and Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, while wind ensemble director Garett George shared the holiday repertoire that his students were working on. Yeh says of the conversation,

The young musicians were curious about the CSO rehearsal schedule and were impressed with the concentrated schedule that we follow for the CSOtv productions. I was delighted to meet with these young music students over Zoom and was pleased to see their continuing involvement in their musical ensemble, holding rehearsals and performances over the internet. Mr. George’s dedication to his students and his hard work during the pandemic is especially inspiring to see!

The Negaunee Music Institute is committed to connecting students and teachers with the musicians and resources of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With the support of generous donors, remote learning opportunities will continue in the months ahead, as we look forward to a safe return to in-person activities.